Obama Backs 'Consumer Bill of Rights' for Online Privacy

The White House embraces browser-based do-not-track tools. FTC will gain enforcement authority as Commerce Department convenes stakeholders (including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo) to develop a voluntary codes of conduct. Center for Digital Democracy, however, calls for legislation.

By Kenneth Corbin
Thu, February 23, 2012
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As the administration wades further into the online privacy debate, it is conscious of the precarious balance between shielding consumers from potentially harmful practices without imposing such onerous restrictions on data collection and behavioral targeting that they quash the activities of legitimate online advertisers, the economic engine behind much of the free content and services available on the Web.

In that sense, much of the industry's push for self-regulation is preserved in today's framework, the FTC enforcement authorities notwithstanding.

The focus left privacy advocates such as Jeff Chester wanting more. Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called today's announcement a "good start," but lamented that the White House did not take a more forceful approach and lead with the submission of draft legislation to Congress.

"The new framework largely depends on the development of voluntary codes of conduct, to be negotiated between consumer groups and companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and others," Chester said in a statement, noting that his group and others championing stronger privacy protections would engage in negotiations with industry and government leaders in "good faith," while making it plain that he has reservations about the administration's efforts. "We cannot accept any 'deal' that doesn't really protect consumers, and merely allows the data-profiling status quo to remain. Instead of negotiations, CDD would have preferred the White House to introduce new legislation that clearly protected consumers online."

Chester also expressed concern that the Digital Advertising Alliance could commandeer the role of overseeing development of the do-not-track system, resulting in a defanged tool that may limit behavioral advertising without really addressing deep well of online data collection. Similarly, he warned against a U.S. approach that could undermine a more rigid set of privacy safeguards under consideration in the European Union.

Over the coming weeks, the Department of Commerce, which was integral in the development of the White House privacy blueprint, will begin convening its meetings with industry stakeholders and other groups to develop codes of conduct and crafting strategies for putting into place the principles outlined in the consumer bill of rights.

"These rights give consumers clear guidance on what they should expect from those who handle their personal information, and set expectations for companies that use personal data," Obama wrote in the introduction to the document. "I call on these companies to begin immediately working with privacy advocates, consumer protection enforcement agencies, and others to implement these principles in enforceable codes of conduct."

Nevertheless, the administration signaled that self-regulation and executive action may not be enough to adequately protect consumers. In announcing its privacy blueprint, the White House said that it also intends to reach out to members of Congress to develop legislation that would enshrine some of the principles within the consumer bill of rights and "extend baseline privacy protections to commercial sectors that existing federal privacy laws do not cover."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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